Sleeping Like The Buddha
by Judith Azrael
Reflections from a meditation retreat held in 1993, at The City of 10,000 Buddhas, California.
Peace permeates this monastery. The peacocks are still here giving their strange plaintive cries. As I walk through the fields I see pheasants and rabbits. I walk past a covey of quail, and they do not startle away. I sit in the meadow in the cool evening air, waiting for the first evening sitting. I've been waiting so long for this retreat, hoping it is a chance to go forth into some deeper understanding.
Last night I fell out of bed. It felt more as if the bed dropped me. The mattress is completely unsupported on the sides. In the middle of the night I woke up chilly and reached down for a blanket on the floor. I promptly landed on top of it.
A smoke alarm with a weak battery emits a high pitched beep at intervals of a few moments. I sleep and wake to its call. I find myself seeking glimpses of the watcher as I drift again and again into sleep. Sleep is a dark peaceful cloak that folds me inside it. The watcher remains awake.
Last night the monk spoke about the word "templum," a consecrated space marked out on the ground within which one observes the movements of nature. Whatever enters a templum is taken note of -- stars, moon, shadow, bird, insect. Its root is the same as that of "temple" and "contemplation."
A warm, gentle wind blows. This retreat feels different. It feels simpler. I feel less resistance to conforming, less desire to be anyone special. There is nothing much that I expect.
When Ajahn Chah, the old Thai master, was asked how he was, his answer was that he was good enough. Walking toward the meditation hall, I have a pang of missing the two nuns who were present at last year's retreat. Their radiance changed the universe for me. I hadn't known such beauty was possible. White dried grasses and a tree that sings whenever I pass.
Peacocks mourning in the rain.
Last night the monk spoke of "emotional proliferation", "conceptual proliferation" -- all those thoughts, desires, or aversions that we bring to everything. He told us the story of the ex-monk who walked three miles in the middle of the night to telephone his friend. "You've got to help me," he says. "I am going to murder that peacock."
This morning he speaks of Buddha's temptation and the many forms that Mara can take. The third temptation is responsibility. It takes the form of Buddha's elderly father. He is crying and pleading for his son to come home.
A chaos of dreams last night, and somehow all the choices I make are wrong ones. I wake wondering, "What about 'metta', what about loving kindness toward myself?"
There is a woman here whose wheelchair sounds like a Tibetan bell. A blind woman who moves like a dancer. What do they think and feel when the monk says, "All that arises, ceases and is not self?"
The smoke alarm batteries have been replaced, and the nights grow peaceful. Some of the people present had come for only three days, and now the group is smaller.
The nun spoke last night and said she had a happy moment when she realized she would never be happy, that it wasn't possible. Isn't this the realization of the First Noble Truth?
Our retreat is housed at a large Chinese monastery. This morning I work in the kitchen. There are two other women from the retreat and the Chinese women. There are cauldrons of food to cut and wash. The cook uses a gigantic wok. It takes muscle to stir the food with a spatula as large as a shovel. The washing of vegetables is meticulous. The cutting must be done at certain angles, and someone gives us a brief demonstration each time we are to cut a new vegetable. There are seemingly endless pots and bowls for us to wash. We end up wet and tired and smiling.
The nun says that by the fourth day on a retreat, we are so worn down by lack of sleep and submitting to a strange environment that we begin to surrender. We have been rising at five in the morning. The day and evening are divided into forty-five minute periods of sitting meditation each followed by a period of walking meditation. Silence is maintained during the retreat.
Last night the monk spoke of the stillness that comes from concentration. And yet that is not enough. We can use that stillness to investigate. He described putting the word "mother" at the center of the stillness when he was a young monk and watching the chaos that ensued. He suggests looking at our angers, our fears, our desires, our aversions -- learning to know them, to recognize them, and to be able to let them go.
I've been hard on myself the last day or so. Self-critical. I don't know why. Maybe looking at it, I will be able to let it go. I even have a toothache I got from clenching my teeth in my sleep. I remember a strange jarring night. I felt as if electric jolts were running through me.
The monk says that in making decisions, listen to the heart. The mind can go on and on arguing with itself, but the heart doesn't listen. It knows what it wants.
The nun speaks of the formation of an intention. It can be for an hour or a day or much longer. The formation of an intention of loving kindness is the example she gives. As she speaks, I begin to realize the vastness of what she is saying. I've always believed our sensitivity is formed by our past and once formed remains unchanged. But monastic life entails a constant attention and awareness. Sensitivity is continuously being refined. I speak excitedly to the monk about my realization and the hope it seems to offer for mankind. "Yes," he agrees. "It can create miracles."
All at once the retreat seems to be moving too quickly. Today is my last day of working in the kitchen. We spend hours pinching the ends off oriental peas. I like dealing with these huge quantities of food amidst the Chinese women. We sit on low stools like peasants. Today is warmer, and for a while we take our bowls of peas outside and work in the sunlight.
This morning the nun led a meditation on loving kindness. She used as a gauge of lovingness her feelings for squirrels and rabbits. She tries to apply that tenderness to herself and to all others. All day I have been imagining myself as a rabbit, that innocent and vulnerable.
I want to think much more about the formation of intentions. I want to make it a part of my life.
And I want to write of the monk's talk last night. For a while he spoke about the practice of investigating the watcher, of asking the question, "Who is watching?" I was first instructed in this practice many years ago by a Korean monk. And though my progress has been slow and halting, I've never forgotten the question. I've spoken to him about it from time to time, and he has gently encouraged me to go on asking.
As the monk talked, I jotted down phrases, fearful of losing them. Each word seemed precious. He spoke of the tremendous sacrifice of this path that entails letting go of everything. He spoke of abiding in the place that is no place. "This is a path," he told us, "that requires constant relinquishment, relinquishment that will take you the whole way." Sometimes he seemed to be looking at me. And once he said, "I don't know if I should be telling you this." After he left the meditation hall, I put my head to the floor, and silent sobs ran through me.
This afternoon I finally walk through the sheep meadow to the stream. This is a place of great beauty. The stream has many voices. Now and then I look up startled, thinking someone is speaking just around the bend. I imagine having a hut here where I could sit each day and listen to the stream.
Tonight the monk tells us about a great Chinese Buddhist master. He was twice beaten and left for dead when he was a very old man, beaten by the Red Chinese who wanted to put an end to Buddhism in China. His disciples were bewildered by how their master seemed to cling to life. Finally they said to him, "Master, you are very old, and almost all of your bones are broken. Why do you hang on so to your body and your life? Why not let it go now?" He explained to them that the karma of his killers would be too great were he to die from their blows. And so he lived on and was not beaten again.
The monk speaks of neither believing your thoughts nor disbelieving them. Instead, he tells us, "Hold them up for examination."
"Celibacy in India is called Brahmacariya," he says. "It means to walk with God."
The last few days the peacocks have been displaying their glorious tails. Then they turn their backs. Beneath the circle of feathers is a miracle of down and color that I've never seen before. Lately I find myself thinking of a pilgrimage to the sacred places of India.
Early evening and drizzling. I take a long walk on a path across these green meadows. I had expected the weather to be hot and looked forward to it. But this mist seems gentle and somehow appropriate.
I walk slowly toward the meditation hall and the evening talk wondering if I am worthy of receiving so much.
Last night the nun spoke about what it was like to become a nun and the limitations that life requires. She had been a dancer who enjoyed her work and her friends. But slowly she grew bored and discontented with continually pleasing herself. She knew life had a deeper meaning and came to the monastery to find it. She spoke of her wild inner battles and the chaos of resistance she struggled with. Again and again she told herself, "Trust this chaos, trust this wild energy, for it will set you free."
I had known that many of the monks and nuns had been dreamers and wanderers and rebels. And I wondered how they were able to deal with their rebelliousness. She provided me with a careful description of what her experience had been. It seemed she was describing a rebellion against rebelliousness and the deep resulting joy. The rebelliousness doesn't die. It changes its object. It begins to serve a deeper morality. I've often longed for a greater self-discipline. She has provided me with a map.
Sometimes my life seems such a long journey. When I was in my twenties someone taught me to trust my feelings. It was an important lesson, one that guided me for years. And now there is the unlearning. There is Buddhism that teaches the impermanence of feelings. Everything that arises ceases and is not self.
There is an eighty-three year old woman attending this retreat. Last night she requested a birthday blessing.
A bluebird is sitting on a branch.
The monk tells us there will be an all night sitting tonight. He will be offering blessings to those who are ill, to those who have recently died. I hand in a slip of paper with my parents' names written on it. For a while there is sadness. Whose sadness is this? I watch it arise and cease.
Last night we meditated until 3:00 am and then recited the morning chants. The monk had made it clear we didn't need to stay all night if we were tired, but I think all of us stayed. The night was fluid and timeless. Tea was served at midnight, and then we talked with the monk for awhile. Then we continued sitting.
I hadn't expected to attend the whole sitting. But I found I couldn't leave. The sense of community was moving. The meditation was still and deep. At times I rose to go outside to do walking meditation. The rain had stopped, and the night was very cold. I wore a shirt and two sweaters topped with a sweatshirt, all the warm clothes I had brought. I walked slowly back and forth in the darkness and the silence. A full moon sailed in and out of the clouds.
Today the schedule is relaxed to allow us time to rest. Our tiredness and the pouring rain make the day feel slow and peaceful.
I nap for an hour in the afternoon. Just before falling asleep, I realize the answer to the question the Korean monk gave me so long ago. The realization is a quiet one. It changes nothing. And yet everything has changed.
Shoes are lined up in pairs outside the door to the meditation hall. One pair is as small as a child's. It belongs to a young Japanese woman. I have watched her creating lovely, intricate flower arrangements. She places them on the altar and in each room where we gather.
The monk talks about a period during which he felt as if he were in a gray box. He was puzzled at his own discontent until he realized it was the "I" that imprisoned him. "Who is meditating?" and "Who am I?" were the questions that allowed the spaciousness to return. Buddha says the greatest happiness is letting go of the concept of "I am," the monk tell us.
Conceit in Buddhism is believing "I am" -- whether you believe yourself to be wonderful or terrible or mediocre.
As I meditate there is an image that keeps recurring. It is a moment at the end of my marriage when I ran sobbing down a path into a thicket. My husband followed me and tried to comfort me. "Everything will be all right," he told me. But I cried out again and again that nothing would ever be all right. That was many years ago. Why is the memory returning now?
Tonight it is the nun who speaks to us. Every time there is mindfulness, we disempower what we are thinking or feeling, she tells us.
Metta-Karuna means cherishing oneself as one cherishes a child. This body and this mind are our instruments for realization, and so we must treat ourselves lovingly.
To sleep peacefully, sleep like the Buddha on the right side, right hand under the right cheek, left arm stretched out along the side. Remember the refuge of the here and now against a flood of feelings or thoughts or confusions.
I walk back to my room beneath the bright stars. And then I sleep like the Buddha.
The end of the retreat is near. Only two more full days after today. The monk suggests we meditate outside this afternoon, so I splash upstream. Sheep startle out of the way as I approach. A heron lifts into flight. I find a sandbar in the sunlight and sit there.
In his evening talk, the monk speaks of Dependent Origination. During the first two hours of the night of Buddha's enlightenment, he understood how suffering arises. It is a concept I want to learn more about. The monk describes how our feelings become desire, and then desire becomes grasping. When we can live at the level of feeling without desire, we can live in a harmonious way. He suggests that we watch this process happen, watch what pulls us away from pure mind.
I begin the sitting tonight feeling tired and sad. Yet when the bell sounds, I am not ready to end my meditation. I am beginning to realize how meaningful it would be for me to spend some time at the monastery.
Buddha allows only one desire, one attachment. That is the attachment to the practice of meditation.
A red-headed woodpecker flies by with its wings closed like a bullet.
The monk speaks of deliberately bringing up disturbing patterns when we are calm in order to watch how they develop. Restraint arises, he says, from not wanting to hurt ourselves, like brakes on a car. It is mindfulness that stops the whole process of Dependent Origination.
He tell us about the old Thai master who was the teacher of the monks. Before he died, he was in a coma for many years. Shortly before he slipped into a coma, he would say puzzling things. "Still and flowing water," he said. "The mind is like still and flowing water." The phrase echoes within me.
It was about a year ago that I spent some time in the tiny villages along the Mekong river. I would sit on the bamboo porch of my guest hut above the river. The current was swift and unceasing. I watched the water sweep by, and I watched my thoughts and feelings flowing endlessly past. It was Heraclitus who said that you cannot step twice into the same river. He also said that there is nothing permanent except change. I sat beside the river of still and flowing water.
This is the last full day of the retreat. The sun moves in and out of the clouds. I feel a deep peacefulness.
I sit by the stream awaiting the afternoon meditation session. I take off my shoes and cross the stream, feeling the coolness of the water. Peacocks cry from the treetops.
In the evening the monk speaks about the retreat that will end tomorrow, and offers us parting advice. "Remember to abandon the self, to relinquish the self," he tells us, "and then you will have wholeness." It isn't necessary to plan. Allow for not knowing. Allow for uncertainty. It is possible to be happy, he assures us, to end our suffering. It truly is possible.
During the last morning talk, the monk speaks of a conference he attended with the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama is always addressed as "Your Holiness." As the monk addressed him, he understood how literal the title was. He felt he was speaking to holiness itself. When I say good-bye to the monk, he gazes into my eyes for a long time. And then I raise my hands to my forehead and bow my head.